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Team USA glides to semis in Sledge Hockey Championships

It took Team USA some time to find its scoring groove. The Americans reverted old habits in the first period of their preliminary round game against Italy at HarborCenter on Wednesday.

But a late first period goal kick the offense into gear as six players tallied in a 7-0 win at the IPC Sledge Hockey World Championships. The US will face Norway in Friday’s semifinals.

The U.S. dominated, spending most of the time in the offensive zone. They held a 44-4 advantage in shots and Italian goaltender Santino Stillitano made some incredible saves in the opening 13 minutes of play to keep the game scoreless.

With 1:54 left in the first, Declan Farmer got the U.S. on the board with a power-play goal.

That led to a more productive second period as the Americans added goals by by Joshua Pauls and Farmer to take control.

“We just got comfortable in the game,” Farmer said of his team settling in during the second period. “We were getting shots and everyone relaxed a little bit so we were able to bury our chances.”

“We got back into our old habits of not bearing down, and in the second and third we realized we have to hit the back of the net and not glass,” said Pauls, who also picked up an assist. “It really was about puck placement and making sure you’re getting solid contact with the puck, because sometimes it rolls up and down on your stick and you get a wobbly shot or a wounded duck or whatever you want to call it.

“I think it was just about being calmer with the puck,” Pauls said. “They were really trying to block shots and they did a great job of it, but we just had to wait them out, get around them and then take a good shot instead of a bad one.”

The U.S. broke the game open in the third, wearing down Italy and scoring four more goals – by Joshua Misiewicz, Kevin McKee, Paul Schaus and Adam Page.

The Americans finished preliminary play at the top of Group B, winning all three games and outscoring opponents, 20-1.

The lopsided scores were a bit of a concern for the U.S. team. As the host country, they don’t want to embarrass their opponents, especially as they look to grow the game.

“They’ve been talking in the women’s game how there’s a disconnect between the U.S. and Canada,” and the rest of the world, Pauls said, “and there wasn’t enough parity in the sport. I think sometimes you can suffer from that in a game, but this definitely wasn’t one of those. We didn’t hold back. The Italians played a great game, and they played hard through the 45 minutes.

“Yeah, you don’t want to embarrass your opponent because you want the sport to grow and you want people to want to play.”

But the performance of the U.S. certainly helps in growing the sport of sled hockey domestically along with the entire Paralympic movement.

Beth Bourgeois, the director of communications for the United States Olympic Committee’s Paralympic Division, said events like the world championships and the coverage by NBC Sports, including live streaming all 20 games and broadcasting the gold medal game live on NBCSN, helps raise awareness and reach a new audience.

“There are 21 million people in the United States with a physical disability, but it’s so hard to reach them. So, a platform like this to educate people and if it’s not a person with a disability it’s a friend or family member who urges them to get involved at the community level,” Bourgeois said. “We like to promote our athletes as elite athletes and these are our elite players. They’re national team players at a world championship. When you come to an event like this, we have school kids come to games, we visit … hospitals in the area, we reach out to rehabilitation facilities, to Paralympic clubs that provide grass-roots programs. We want the community – kids, adults and parents – to realize what’s possible.”

What’s possible for the U.S. now is a medal and another shot at a gold.

Norway clinched the second seed in Group A with a 5-0 victory over Japan.

Group B runner-up, Russia, clinched a spot in Friday’s semifinals against Group A winner Canada.